Infrastructure: Tax increase is needed to fix roads, bridges

West Virginia’s roads and bridges are disintegrating. Take a drive of more than 10 minutes in any direction and you will see that.

Meanwhile, many lawmakers are understandably reluctant to raise taxes because they and many of their constituents know there are too many in state government who will use it as an excuse to continue living beyond taxpayers’ means. The State Road Fund is different.

Anti-tax sentiment has so far not differentiated between West Virginia’s General Revenue Fund and the road fund; but there is a big difference.

While general fund spending trended steadily upward for many years, the budget for roads and bridges remained stagnant. The current-year road fund, at $1.255 billion, is just 7 percent higher than for fiscal 2012.

Money available for routine road maintenance and to repair and replace bridges has seen a catastrophic decline. Those budget line items totaled about $445 million in fiscal 2013. This year, the amount was just $434 million — after a period of steady increases in costs for everything from asphalt to heavy equipment.

West Virginia’s highways are in disrepair as a result. Instead of crews working to repair slips, too often we see orange cones left to warn drivers of dangerous conditions.

Gov. Jim Justice’s administration has proposed a substantial tax increase to repair existing roads and bridges and build new ones. It includes a few increases in fees paid by vehicle owners.

But the primary source of an expected $136 million a year in additional revenue is an 8-cent per gallon increase in the tax on fuel.

Gasoline and diesel fuel taxes have been the primary source of road funds for decades. But the formula is bringing in less money now than it did before, simply because it is calculated on a per-gallon basis. Cars and trucks that go farther on a gallon of fuel mean less tax revenue.

Legislators should go along with the governor’s plan — with one concrete stipulation:

A higher tax and fees should be dedicated first to repairing what roads and bridges we have. Then, if additional funding is available, we can move on to new construction.

No one likes higher taxes. But take a look around — then let your legislators know you are willing to pay a few cents more for fuel to restore our roads and bridges to a passable, safe condition.